The first breakaway club, Enfield Town, play Beveren on Saturday in this year’s Supporters Direct Cup match. Here’s Nigel Howard on two clubs from different countries who have both found a viable future under the ownership of their supporters.

On Saturday 27th July 2013, North London-based Enfield Town, of Ryman League Premier Division – the seventh level of English football – host YB SK Beveren of the third Provincial East Flanders League – the seventh level of Belgian football in a pre-season friendly. It’s not, on the face of things, a fixture of particular note, but closer inspection reveals a growing trend amongst football supporters – not the tendency simply to vote with their feet when dissatisfied but a more positive trend: the willingness to join together and do something about it.

This match represents the inaugural meeting of both England and Belgium’s first supporter-owned clubs. For many years, the idea that a football club playing at a reasonable level could be owned by the supporters would have been considered preposterous. Very often the control of football clubs lays with individuals – those at least calling themselves ‘businessmen’. It can be said that “players and managers may come and go, but supporters stay forever”, and such loyalty makes football supporters what they are: Highly passionate about, and highly devoted to their team.  

However, this loyalty is also exploited by these owners when enforcing changes against the wishes of the supporters. One such change is in club identity, and a study of the two teams involved in this match sees two ways in which that has happened. But first, why is club identity important? Fundamentally, it is almost invariably part of the reason for the support for a team, as it often represents their local area, region, or their place of birth, where they were raised as a child, or through family connections. The club is a representation of who they are.  

Formed in 2001 following a split from Enfield FC, for many years one of the leading clubs in English non-league football. Left homeless after the 1999 sale of their home ground by a chairman who saw pound signs before his eyes, but with no definitive plans of where to play next, a nomadic existence resulted, travelling from ground to ground around North London and South Hertfordshire. This wandering club though it retained the name of the club, was no longer truly representing the area of Enfield. A supporters’ trust was founded with the aim of taking control of the club, and returning it to its rightful home in the London Borough of Enfield. The then chairman of Enfield initially agreed to hand over control of the club, but then reneged on the deal.

The trust upped the ante by threatening to form a breakaway club, a move which had little effect, as the chairman expected the previously mentioned supporter loyalty to a club to win through. However, in a landmark decision, the members of the trust voted overwhelmingly to establish a new club, and Enfield Town was born and immediately established its goal of playing in the London Borough of Enfield.  

Visitors YB SK Beveren originate from Jupiler League side KSK Beveren. In the late 1990’s they just managed to stay above the regelation zone whilst, at the same time, financial problems started to emerge that could potentially result in the loss of the club’s professional licence and relegation to the third flight of Belgian football. The appointment of a new manager in 2001 saw an improvement on the pitch, with the side finishing runners up in the Cup in 2004 and playing European football in 2004/5. However, in 2006 the manager was sacked, and many players he brought in left the club.

This proved highly detrimental to the club’s fortunes and KSK finished bottom in 2007, and relegated to the second division. The club’s decline continued unabated, though and in 2010 the club finished bottom of the second division. However, ingrained financial issues were still unresolved, and this, combined with unwillingness of the local Beveren council to provide support for a third division club, resulting in an enforced merger with local side KV Red Star Waasland to form Waasland-Beveren.  

The merged club play in KSK’s former stadium – the Freethiel Stadium in Beveren – but have chosen to trace their lineage from  of the much smaller, former amateur club, Waasland.   Naturally this was a move which some supporters of KSK Beveren were deeply unhappy with, seeing it as the loss of the identity of their club. In January 2011, disillusioned with the situation, the not-for-profit members’ organization Eskabee 1935 was set up to revive the club, and the team YB SK Beveren was established.  

And there it is. An apparently ordinary match for a less than ordinary trophy that celebrates supporters taking control of their clubs. The point here is that where in the past, the owners of football clubs might have considered supporters to be obedient, compliant creatures of habit, what these two clubs have proved is that the spirit of a club really doesn’t lie in the corporate entity that holds the registration, or licence to play, or other paraphernalia.    

The decision to form a supporter owned breakaway club is never taken lightly by supporters, and neither should it be. We believe that it is a decision that should be the last resort when all other means have failed. But it is there as an option to show owners that supporters are longer prepared to be taken advantage of, and are now prepared to do something to ensure that this much cherished identity is retained.         

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